By any other name

For various reasons, there are a lot of international teachers leaving my school this year, and those of us returning to the U.S. frequently muse about what we are returning to. In the aftermath of the past week in my hometown, that has become especially true for me, but not entirely for the reasons one might suspect.

Yes, it was unsettling to have the Marathon bombed; that act has rattled the city to its core, will result in changes that will be felt from now on, and leaves us with a heightened awareness of our own vulnerability. But the even more pervasive feeling of unease for me comes from the deep sense of embarrassment I felt from watching/reading some of the coverage. I feel embarrassed over American ignorance and provincialism, and quite frankly I fear our ongoing stupidity more than I fear any new terrorist attack; our limited worldview is much more of a threat because of the way it fosters hatred and bigotry among us and negative international attitudes toward us. It is part of the cause, whereas the actual attacks are just the effect.

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O Bag, Where Art Thou? (A guide to surviving Ethiopian Airlines, Part 2)

I realized that the last post’s title is a little misleading; it is not really so much a “guide” as it offers no practical advice. I suppose it is a guide in the sense that, if you enter into a situation with Ethiopian Air knowing those 5 things, you are possibly less likely to pop a blood vessel over the experience.

So to make sure I include it this time, here’s my one piece of practical advice when Ethiopian Air loses your luggage in Tanzania: Have someone who speaks Swahili call and deal with it for you.
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A guide to surviving Ethiopian Airlines, Part 1

I’d heard mixed things about Ethiopian Airlines before this trip, and now that I have flown with them, my overall assessment is that the food is pretty good and the on-plane service is fine, but basically everything else about this company is kind of a mess. The fact that, according to their in-flight magazine, they keep winning all these awards for African businesses says more about the state of other African businesses than it does about the quality of Ethiopian Air. Then again, Turkish Airlines, which has violently screwed over multiple colleagues of mine, also recently won the title of “Europe’s Best Airline” at the World Airline Awards (who knew such a thing existed), topping Swiss Air and Lufthansa, so obviously things like customer experience do not really factor into these decisions.

Admittedly, not all of the debacle I experienced on the way to Tanzania is attributable directly to Ethiopian Air. Some of it was just general industry dysfunction and a very different understanding of customer service. Everyone I met in the service and tourism industry in Africa was unfailingly kind and friendly, but the people who work at the airports and for the airlines clearly don’t have the same approach to their work.

In the current vein of sharing practical travel information (someday, I will actually get around to talking about my Tanzania safari), here are some things I wish I’d known about Ethiopian before flying with them:
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Not in Bulgaria – Part 1

There are many things you can do in Bulgaria that you can’t in the U.S. I’m not just talking about cultural events that obviously are not shared between the two countries, but also experiences that you can have because Bulgaria, like much of Europe, is a much less litigious society than the U.S., and so there are many situations in which the “Don’t be an idiot” common sense rule applies, such as in Belogradchik:


Notice the utter lack of any kind of railing, anywhere. Clearly, the only rule in operation here is, “Don’t be stupid and fall off the gigantic rocks.” And this isn’t just because it’s some obscure getaway that nobody knows about and therefore can’t be bothered with security measures – the Belogradchik rocks are quite well known and frequently visited. It’s because they expect—one might even say, they trust—you to be a reasonable and responsible person. Families climb up here with small children all the time, and nobody freaks out about it. The rule just becomes, “Don’t be stupid and let your kid fall off the gigantic rocks.”

In Belogradchik, I see this as a good thing; it allows you to climb freely and enjoy an unobstructed view of the magnificent rocks and the surrounding landscape. However, the title of this post is “Not in Bulgaria” because this laissez-faire attitude toward regulation is not always such a good thing. Things that are rules elsewhere for a reason simply aren’t rules in Bulgaria. This can lead to Foreigner #1 frequently spluttering, “But isn’t it supposed to—” and Foreigner #2/Wise Ex-pat replying, “Not in Bulgaria!”

I’ve experienced two recent examples of this. Continue reading

I have found something worse than Bulgarian customer service

It’s called Skype “customer service.”

I’m too mad still to even bother giving context for this; anyway, all the exposition you need is basically in the chat already. I think the transcript speaks for itself, so I’ll just paste it below.

Warning: this is extremely long.

NB: Pay attention also to the time stamps in the chat. When there’s long pauses or I don’t respond, it’s usually because I did compose a response but decided it was too rude to actually send.

NB: I changed my own name in this transcript but left the CS reps’, so that if you ever have the misfortune to be on Skype Live Support with any of these idiots, you’ll know to run far away.

NB: I’m posting this from home because my interwebz is fixed! Bulgarian internet servicemen who don’t speak any English are, as it turns out, MUCH more helpful and articulate than Skype representatives.

Without further ado… Continue reading

Feeling a little ethnic

I spent my Christmas/New Year’s holiday in central/southern Italy (Florence, Siena, Sorrento) and Malta. Other than one cold, damp, rainy day in Malta, it was a great trip. However, it also reminded me of one thing that I dislike about living in Europe because I think it comes up more frequently here than it does in the U.S. (or at least the parts of the U.S. I mostly move around in): People are much likely to make certain comments or act on certain assumptions because I’m Asian.

Maybe this is because loads of Asian tour groups descend on Europe in a way that they don’t quite do in the U.S. Or maybe they’re just more spaced out in the U.S. – I don’t know. I will say that it doesn’t seem to happen as much in the UK, Germany (offensive posters at Cannstatter aside), or France, where perhaps there are more Asian immigrants living integrated with the more indigenous population. I’ve already written about the open stares I get in Bulgaria, but on this last trip, I had a creepy church guard at St. John’s in Valletta stalk me around the cathedral and harass me with, “Zhong guo ren, zhong guo ren! Ni hao ma? Konichiwa!” repeatedly while listening to music on his cell phone/iPod and trying to angle it in a way so that I could see his spiffy touch screen (he was basically the worst church employee ever), and then in our hotel breakfast room, a pensioner from the UK touched my arm to warn me about a supposedly nonfunctional toaster, but when I turned around she was clearly flummoxed by my appearance and didn’t think I would understand her language, so instead she pointed at the offending toaster and shook her head very slowly at me.

But it was still a good trip.

PS. Re: creepy church guard – who actually uses that as a pickup line? [It translates into: “Chinese person, Chinese person! How are you?” in Mandarin and then “Hello!” in Japanese] What am I supposed to respond to that?

Freakin’ kids

Why I both adore and cannot handle my boys sometimes:

7/4/11 17:02 – G to Me

Hi, Ms.___! I am sorry for bothering you during the vaccation, but apparently I’m an idiot and have lost my second draft…. Do you know what can be done about it? I’m sorry 😦

8/4/11 18:18 – Me to G

Hi G,

Nothing can be done – you still have to submit a final on Tuesday. Hopefully you find it!

10/4/11 18:19 – G to Me

Hi, again! I found my 2nd draft, but without the feedback. So, is it possible that I come to you during consultation period and you just give me a very brief feedback on some parts because I have 21/30 so I obviously need to make a few corrections?

10/4/11 18:22 – G to Me

or maybe give it to you in the 1st period so that you have time, if it is not a problem for you..again sorry

10/4/11 18:40 – Me to G


You may come during consultation and I will take a look at it on the spot and give you some verbal feedback. I won’t have time to look it over before consultation anyway, so giving it to me earlier does not make any difference.

10/4/11 18:49 – G to Me

thank you!

10/4/11 21:25 – G to Me



Oh yeah, and I’ve been in Italy for the past 9 days. In fact the first part of that email exchange was occurring while I was in Bologna and Venice, tapping away on my iPod. I’m going to post on Italy soon…it’s just that, in typical fashion, the real world has very quickly and rudely (and humorously, in this case), interceded in my re-entry procedure.